Meet Tacoma’s Poet Laureate

Abby E. Murray grew up in Ferndale with a single mother and five sisters. By the time she was a college student, she was a self-proclaimed pacifist and thought she had it all figured out. 

All of that was challenged, however, when she fell in love with a man in the military. “I don’t think I was a very tolerant person,” Murray reflected. “I openly disliked the military. I wasn’t interested in learning about it, and that was how I met my husband, because we argued all the time. And he would call me and ask me to go out to lunch again.” 

Since marrying her husband in 2004 and becoming a military spouse, Murray has been confronted daily with the contradictions that exist within everyone: In her husband, who fought overseas while deployed, and who also has a 5-year-old daughter he loves to throw in the air, and in herself, a poet who publishes an online journal about the impact of war and conflict while also teaching military strategic writing to lieutenant colonels and colonels. 

“Everyone is carrying around these conflicts,” Murray said. “We’re all figuring out how to balance them.” 

Murray’s goal as Tacoma Poet Laureate — the city’s official representative of all things poetry — is to provide poetry in spaces where it is not currently accessible, such as South and East Tacoma, as well as Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Do you think poetry is political? Is yours? 

I don’t think there is a poem that’s not political. I don’t think it’s possible. I think it’s possible to be afraid of that. It’s very possible to dislike it and say, I don’t want that. It’s possible to hope very hard that it’s not. 

In my poems, I just lay out what is there already. I’m pointing out hypocrisy in military culture and also in literary culture — there’s a lot of hypocrisy there, too. I’m pointing out the injustice of being a woman, being a mother, not being a mother. I’m not really saying, “Here’s how you should feel about it,” but the way you feel after reading my poem maybe says something about you. All I’m doing is stoking the fire a little bit. 

Your online literary journal, Collateral, publishes poems about war and violent conflict. How do you define that? 

A couple of poems in this (last) issue that are looking at the brutality inflicted on queer people and the deaths of people for their identity. That’s war. Racism is a part of war. 

I think we see war a lot more often than we like to think; we like to think we’re immune to it. It feels safer to say that. I have a lot of students who I taught writing to . . . who were really adamant at first that they didn’t have any connections (to war). And I was like, do you have a laptop? Where’d you get your clothes? What are you eating today? Who built your house? There are connections to war everywhere. And unless we start taking accountability, you know, we can’t really inch closer to that culture of nonviolence. A lot of being married to (my husband) has forced me to look at my complicity or complacency — what part have I played?

Did you always know you wanted to write? To teach? 

I understood from an early age that language had a lot of power, and it was something I could take with me anywhere I went. And so, I really liked writing when I was little.

By the time I was in college, I realized I wanted to be a teacher, because I really liked working with people who didn’t think they’re writers. I really liked working with people who are like, “This is deceptive, I don’t like this.” Or, “I’ve never tried it and I want to.” With people like that, I was like a moth to a flame. 

You started teaching argumentation in military and academic writing to fellows at the U.S. Army War College in 2016. What do those classes look like? 

My students, they’re always lieutenant colonels or colonels. They’re not writers, or they don’t know they’re writers. But they are (learning) to write about military strategy. 

I talk a lot about writing and how we express what we’re thinking, including not just our emotions, but you know, how do we express data, and how do we use it to our advantage? And how do we evaluate the way that people use language? How do we make judgments based on that? The classes are always really interesting. We definitely learn from each other. 

I don’t teach poetry in the class, but I do talk about poetry. What you say and the way people hear it matters. We crave symmetry, but we also crave surprise. We crave persuasiveness, and yet we also crave rebuttal. So, there’s this parallel between poetry and all kinds of written things, even military strategy. 

You have taught poetry in a lot of unusual spaces through nonprofits and on your own. What is one experience that has really stuck with you? 

I taught a four-week poetry workshop (last year) at the Carson Home, which is a place for detained and undocumented boys between 12 and 17. Families were being separated, and I felt like I wanted to do something, do more. So, I reached out and offered to teach poetry. I brought translators with me. Two-thirds of the boys had never been in a classroom.

is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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